Koya Abe: Selling Vintage Records in Tokyo

Aaron Gilbreath

As the Earth shifted four inches on its axis, Koya twisted back and forth in front of the crates, pressing his hands to hundreds of wobbling, shellacked disks. “Instead of running away,” he said, “I stayed here.” The 9.0 magnitude quake was the worst in Japan’s history. Over 15,000 people died, yet only two of Abe’s 78s fell. Despite his luck, he has installed wooden beams across the racks to hold his discs in place during the next quake.

Named after an early 20th century black American harmonica player, Noahlewis Records  specializes in early jazz, blues, country, doo wop, R&B and rock and roll dating from the 1920s to the 1960s—a mix of American roots music that Abe devilishly calls “pre-Beatles.” He built his business around his own musical tastes, instead of the indie pop and electronica that sells at Tower Records in Shibuya or at Jet Set down the street. In his “Rockin’ Instrumentals” section, you’ll find ‘60s seven-inches like The Virtues’ “Blues in the Cellar,” The Marketts’ “Out of Limits” and the String-A-Longs’ “Twist Watch.” In the “50s-60s R&R Rockabilly” section, seven-inches like Johnny Dee & The Bluenotes’ “Teenage Queen.” (Lyrics: “Teenage queen, you’re everything that my heart ever dreamed.”) Albums by Decca, Capital and Sun are everywhere.

An average day finds Koya sipping a late-afternoon beer and playing Charlie Parker. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air. He hunches behind the counter, entering new items into his website. The store is barely the size of a bedroom. The only open window is a narrow slit on the front door. The walls are covered with records and posters, sheet music and display cases. Koya’s work station is wedged in back, far from any trace of sunlight.

Tokyo contains over thirteen million people. The world’s largest city by size and population, Tokyo has a density of 11,300 people per square mile, and Japan contains one of the world’s highest concentrations of jazz fans per capita. The famous Blue Note and Prestige labels keep many albums in print in Japan that they’ve let lapse in America. Used record stores are filled with original period vinyl, so jazz collectors travel to Tokyo from all over the world to score rarities.

“People who go to other stores and cannot find what they are looking for come here,” Abe says. “Many Japanese musicians buy here. Many, many collectors. They are mostly men in their forties.” In his experience, Japan’s most ardent jazz fans are men ranging from their forties through eighties, though a surprising number of young men and young women are into the music, too, far more than in America.

He lists stock online, but web business is secondary. Customers prefer to come to the store. His many regulars use the website to browse before visiting or calling in their order.

Koya Abe sells vintage records in Tokyo

Vintage music records in Japan

I found Koya’s store online in winter 2014, while planning my first trip to Japan. As a fellow music obsessive, I wanted to buy a bunch of hard-to-find jazz albums, and Noahlewis kept coming up in searches. On the day I first visited, the phone rang—a regular asking about new stock. In the “New Arrivals” section, there was a pristine copy of The Dartells’ 1963 album “Hot Pastrami,” priced at ¥2980; Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul LP (¥3480); Duke Ellington’s Ellington ‘65 LP (¥2980); Lars Gullini With the Moretone Singers LP (¥5800); and Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines LP (¥3480). While Abe spoke, he pressed his hand to the receiver and whispered to me, “ Read this.” He handed me a thick cut LP and pointed to text on the bright blue label. “Mills Brothers,” he said. “No instruments. Only guitar. They make sounds with mouths.” The Mills Brothers were a barbershop quartet. The song, “Rhythm Saved the World,” was recorded in 1935.

          In Tokyo, which outsiders often imagine as a high-tech, fully-digitized city of the future, vintage record collectors like Abe found their identities by looking back in time and looking across the Pacific. Born in a small town an hour north of Sendai, in Miyagi Prefecture, Koya got into music as what he called a “Japanese punk,” listening to bands with names like Stalin, and working at 7-11. He started buying records around age fifteen. His love of music drew him to Tokyo, where he landed a job at the famous Hi-Fi record store in Shibuya at age twenty. There, he discovered roots music through the records of R. Crumb.

Crumb is best known as a cartoonist, but Crumb’s love of 1920s and ‘30s blues, jazz and string music informed his visual art, and he went so far as fronting a retro cover band that released three 33⅓ rpm albums. “They blew me away,” Abe said with a smirk. He keeps a copy of the thick R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book in the store. Having developed a deep knowledge of roots music, Abe the aging punk took everything he’d learned about buying, pricing and selling records and opened his own store in 2001, at age thirty-one. Thirteen years later, Noahlewis Records generates what he calls, with a shrug, “a living, and good fun.”

 Koya hung up the phone, scribbled something on a slip of paper, and set the Mills Brothers record aside.

 “I play something for you,” he said, and slid trumpeter Don Elliott’s Counterpoint For Six Valves LP from its sleeve. I’d never heard of it.

Outside, a Keio Inakashira line subway train eased into Shimokitazawa station. Of all of central Tokyo’s cool neighborhoods, Shimokitazawa was arguably the coolest, measured by the density of youth and independently-owned businesses, cafes and music venues, but Shimokitazawa was changing. A new, huge train station was under construction. Koya said it would be done in three to five years. He seemed neither confident about this projection, nor pleased with the direction it signaled.

The once off-beat Shimokita, as people call it, was growing too busy, too corporate, too mainstream for some residents. Rent, said Koya, was no longer as cheap. The government was going to extend Route 54 right through this pre-war enclave of low buildings and narrow streets, and they had already raised height restrictions to allow high-rise residential development. For a person who made his living from the musical past, these changes were hard for him to take. He’d already liquidated his personal record collection to keep his store open. “Japanese economy—,” he said, and made a downward motion with his thumb.

During the early 2000s, Abe and other Japanese used-record store owners regularly traveled to the US to buy stock for their shops. They’d fly the eleven hours to Los Angeles, hit garage and estate sales, used-record stores and thrift stores, then they’d work their way north through San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. Other times, they’d start in Vancouver, and fly home from Los Angeles, filling luggage and boxes with booty along the way. “Sometimes I would go every month,” Koya said. “Once, five times in one year!” In each city, friends and fellow music geeks would host, driving his crew place to place and helping bridge the language barrier. But Japan’s used record business got tougher. Overseas flights got more expensive. Web sales cut into brick and mortar sales, and the internet increased competition. Good records still fetched high prices in Japan, but not enough to offset the cost of scouting trips. By today’s standard, those trips seem extravagant. Now, Koya finds stock online.

He sipped green tea from a plastic bottle and set it amid the clutter. “Want to get dinner?”

Vintage music record shop in Tokyo Japan

After he locked the store, Koya walked us through Shimokitazawa’s narrow streets, past pubs filled with music and young people, to a nearby izakaya called Furusato. “This is my favorite bar,” he said. The staff greeted us with bows and a loud “Irrashaimase!” We bowed and traded our shoes for blue rubber slippers. Koya showed me where to store my boots under the raised tatami mat.

Before we ordered, he lit a cheap, Echo brand cigarette and set the crumpled orange package on the table. “You like beer?” Yes, I said. “You like sashimi?” I loved it, even more than beer. He turned to the night’s menu, written on a small chalkboard on the wall, then looked up the English words on his phone. “Hirame,” he said. “Hirame. Hmmm.” Google translator said hirame meant “flatfish.” We laughed because flatfish wasn’t very descriptive. He scrolled through more translations until he found another name: “Flounder.” Oh yeah, I said, I know flounder. I’d never had it as sashimi, because American cooking always made it taste dull. Raw, Koya explained, hirame was sweet and mild, nearly as good as hamachi.

He called our order to the chef then studied the menu and called out another order: this time skip-jack, also known as bonito. I love bonito. It’s one of the essential flavors of Japanese cooking, appearing as dried flakes sprinkled on okonomiyaki pancakes and in nourishing dashi soup stocks.

The waitress brought a twenty-two-ounce bottle of Kirin and two small glasses. “But first,” Koya said, “a cheers.” He poured beer in my glass first, then his. This was the Japanese way, a practice I took back to the States. We raised our glasses. “Cheers to your first time in Japan!”

“Kampai!” I added, and clinked his glass. He drained half of his in one gulp.

He poured shoyu into two small dishes in front of us, then stirred wasabi into one, and fresh grated ginger into another. Pointing to thinly-sliced pieces of something white, he said, “This is… eto—” He looked up, muttering to himself and reaching for the word. “Garlic.”

 “Do I put it in here?” I dropped a slice into my shoyu.

“Yes. I like to do this.” He took a piece of bonito, dredged both sides through the soy sauce with the ginger; set it down in the bowl, laid a piece of ginger on it, added a tiny piece of garlic, and ate it in one bite. He was right. It was delicious.

“I like this,” he said, wrapping a large green leaf around a wad of grated radish and shoving it in his mouth. He seemed excited and a bit embarrassed, like he’d hogged it and forgotten to share, but he wasn’t hogging. He was sharing his time and enthusiasm with someone he’d met less than an hour ago.

I pointed to the remaining leaf. “Shiso?”

“You know shiso?” He was impressed. I copied him, wrapping the shiso around some greens and dragging it through my wasabi-spiked shoyu. “Good?” he said.

“Very good,” I said, “Outrageously good.”

He ordered us fried oysters, and I poured him more beer. We talked about his daughter and wife. We talked about my girlfriend and my parents. Naturally, conversation turned to music. Times have changed, but his tastes stay rooted in the early 20th century. Charlie Parker and Bix Beiderbecke are his favorite jazz musicians. He also likes jazz guitarist Eddie Lang, little known clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, Texas tenor John Hardee and early Blue Note recordings like those by Albert Ammons.

“What about blues,” I said. “What are your favorites?”

 “Oh,” he said grinning, “Geeshie Wiley, ‘Last Kind Word Blues.’“

I slapped the table. “Geeshie Wiley? No way. That’s one of my all-time favorite blues!” We stared at each other across the table. We couldn’t do anything but laugh. To me, for pure emotion and haunting beauty, Wiley’s obscure 1930 song had few equals, and here was a stranger from across the Pacific who felt the same way. Neither of us could believe it.

Excited, we kept talking music. Soon, we pulled out our smart phones and started playing each other songs. We didn’t use headphones. We just played the music out loud. First, he played me legendary early trumpeter Bix Biederbecke’s “In a Mist,” one of his favorites. Because he didn’t have it on iTunes, we listened to the song on Youtube, setting the phone down in front of us and letting the sound of Biderbecke’s piano, not his trumpet, fill the room. It was an eerie, stirring song, and it was obvious why it moved Koya.

We finished the beer and kept going. We’d pick a song, pass the other person the phone, and they’d hold it to their ear. Jazz, rock, blues, one tune after another. Lonnie Mack’s “Memphis.” Link Wray’s “Pancho Villa.” To keep the cuts deep, I played him pianist Sonny Clark’s trio version of “Black Velvet.” Koya pressed the end of my phone to his ear and stared down at the table, taking the sounds in deeply. “Wow,” he said. “I like Sonny Clark.” He reciprocated with a fast old country instrumental with blazing lap steel guitar. Koya blasted it, smiling and bobbing his head. One diner looked over at us, but not in an annoyed way, just curiously. Koya was a regular, so the staff didn’t mind our little concert. As the music played, my eyes moved between the phone the tatami and Koya, and I kept thinking about how vast the world was and how music still traveled to its furthest reaches, penetrating so many cultural, temporal and language barriers, and uniting those of us who were open to it into one transnational species. Some of us cried at the sound of certain songs. Some of us spent our entire lives gathering new music. Some of us built our lives around it, like Koya. He knew staggering amounts of names and dates and trivia, many from a nation that he’d only visited, and whose language he taught himself. “This is the only song Bix Bierderbecke recorded on piano,” he told me. “Chuck Berry wrote ‘Memphis,’ not Lonnie Mack.” “Bix died very young, like Charlie Parker.” Koya was a kindred spirit.

Really feeling it now, I played him one of my favorite pieces of piano jazz: Sonny Clark doing “Dancing in the Dark.” When the song’s fast part started and the ride cymbal kicked in, the tune really swung. Koya looked up, hearing the same thing I heard when I listened to it, that thing that’s so hard to name and that made me love the song and Sonny and any person who heard that thing, too.

At the end of our music trading session, after splitting the bill, I went to the restroom. As I pulled open the sliding door, I heard Koya yell, “Aaron!” He was leaning around the corner, waving me back. He handed me the rubber slippers. “For the restroom,” he said. I forgot I was shoeless.

When I came back out, he was sitting beside his table, smoking a cigarette. Back on the streets, Koya led us toward the subway station. We dodged schoolgirls in uniforms. We dodged kids standing around smoking, businessmen in trench coats, young couples and solitary elders carrying plastic bags filled with produce, and he talked about his English. “I am not very good,” Koya said. I disagreed. He was talking to me in English at that moment. “No, no,” he said. “Not good.” But he could read English, which seemed like an undeniable measure of his ability. I couldn’t read one word of Japanese, not even ‘bonito dashi,’ which was one of my favorite things in life. He still disagreed. “Japanese know how to say and hear English,” he explained. “Many Japanese cannot read English. I can read English. I cannot understand English, or say English. Speak English.”

 “So are you saying you don’t know most of what you read on records, even though you can read it?”

“Yes.”

To me, reading words and pronouncing them, even if you don’t know what they all meant, was a profound achievement. I struggled to even pronounce Japanese words phonetically when provided English spellings. Keio Inakashira line subway? I mangled it each time I said it, and when I asked people in Tokyo for directions to other subways or streets, I could hear how far off my pronunciation was by how they said the words back.

 I said, “You’re being too hard on yourself.”

He smacked me on the shoulder. “You talk too fast!”

We bought subway tickets and passed through the station gates. As we descended the stairs to the track, Koya suggested we take the same train to a certain stop, where I could switch to my train to Ikebukuro. The train was packed with revelers and teenagers and shoppers even at 11:30 at night, so we squeezed onto a bench seat among commuters.

“Look,” I said, pulled a bag out of my backpack. “Sencha. Lots and lots of sencha.”

He laughed. “You like sencha? I drink tea. But mostly, coffee.”

 “And beer,” I said.

“Yes, and beer!” He nudged my shoulder and joked about how I forgot my shoes in the bathroom. “Here. The next station is you.”

We got up and stood by the door. Riders steadied themselves on handles overhead. Before switching trains, Koya and I pulled out our cameras to take some selfies. “For my wife,” he said, and leaned in for the shot. I asked a young commuter next to us to take our photo. “My memories,” I said, and thanked the kid.

Tanoshii,” Koya told me. “That means I enjoyed this very much.”

“Tanoshii,” I repeated back. “Tanoshii. Did I say that right?”

“Yes,” he said, smirking. “Tanoshii.”

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Aaron Gilbreath

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